Island Harvest Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization on Long Island, purchased an industrial property in Melville in March for $8.1 million. The 43,560-square-foot building, on three acres of property, is twice the size of its former headquarters in Hauppauge.
“We envision increasing services that will help provide Long Islanders faced with poverty and food insecurity with the resources necessary to lift them from uncertainty to stability,” Randi Shubin Dresner, Island Harvest’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “By doubling the size of the warehouse and office space, Island Harvest Food Bank can efficiently store more product to deliver to Long Islanders facing food insecurity when needed and provide specialized and targeted services to people across Long Island.”
That’s good news for area food pantries. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many once self-sufficient pantries have depended on help from Island Harvest.
“Everyone got inundated and didn’t have enough food for the people that were coming out of the woodwork,” said Karen LaSorsa, agency relations coordinator for Nassau County, who oversees, trains and monitors every pantry that works with Island Harvest. “Seniors were told not to leave the house, and didn’t know how they would get food.”
Veterans have had a hard time too, said Ralph Esposito, the director of Nassau County Veterans Services and a Vietnam veteran. Esposito founded Vet Mart, a food pantry in East Meadow for veterans, housed in Nassau University Medical Center’s building Q, in 2015. He said he could remember traveling to Hauppauge to pick up food from Island Harvest before distribution began in Eisenhower Park.
“That was a hike and a half, a day’s work,” Esposito said. “We went there once a week. Island Harvest has always been very, very helpful to us.”
His pantry assisted 12 veterans, he said, before Covid-19 hit. Now it sees anywhere from 30 to 35 veterans who are food insecure. “I started the pantry because people were out of work,” he said. “Now people are hungry. Our veterans deserve our help and a thank-you.”
When People Loving People opened in Oyster Bay in 2019, it depended on community donations, which were plentiful. But the number of people it served has increased dramatically during the pandemic. “We had 50 people, mostly seniors, that used our food pantry,” said Gina Kang, a co-founder. “Then Covid hit and local community donations went down, but we had 200 people that needed us.”
People Loving People has been using donations from Island Harvest. Kang said it would not have been able to stay open had Island Harvest not helped.
In addition to food distribution, Island Harvest also offers an education outreach program. Shubin Dresner said that the effort had been discussed for years. “We talked a lot about how we need to do more than just give someone a can of food,” she said. “As the proverb goes, ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ This is a way to help our neighbors in need.”
Shubin Dresner, a lifelong East Meadow resident, joined Island Harvest in May 2001. The organization was founded 30 years ago.
In 2019, it distributed more than 10 million pounds of food, personal care items and household products to more than 300,000 residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties. During the pandemic, Island Harvest nearly doubled its efforts, helping more than 550,000 Long Island families who found themselves food insecure as a result of job losses and other economic factors.
The nonprofit has also helped the Mimi Mernin Food Pantry, at the Village Church of Bayville. It, too, saw an increase in food insecurity last year, and a dramatic decrease in its food donations.
“People from our church donated to our food pantry,” said Ann Albo, the Village Church’s outreach coordinator and a trustee. “When the coronavirus happened, we didn’t realize how many people in our area needed help. We weren’t getting donations like we used to. So we filled out the application. We pick up food from Island Harvest twice a week.”
Shubin Dresner said she was looking forward to further expanding the organization’s outreach with the acquisition of the new building. Warehousing and distribution will utilize 23,000 square feet, with 20,000 square feet targeted for administrative and program services.
“We have a very strong outreach program, and last year alone helped 3,000 people enroll in SNAP,” she said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “We can expand this now. We also have realized that if hunger is your problem, it isn’t your only issue. So our team go out into the community to uncover what else is needed to help people.”
Margot Hanford, the procurement director for the North Shore Soup Kitchen, said it was too soon to tell how the increased space at Island Harvest would help. NOSH, which began in Glen Cove, was created to provide emergency meals for the hungry on the North Shore during the pandemic and its aftermath. Members pick up food from Island Harvest at its Uniondale location once a week.
Island Harvest “is a wonderful agency,” Hanford said. “Karen [LaSorsa] is very receptive if we need more food, and gets it for us. We still feed as many people, if not more, than during the height of Covid.”
Island Harvest’s new building will enable it to expand its social service-related programs, including nutrition education, benefits assistance and workforce development, which Shubin Dresner said she was particularly excited about.
“We will work with the unemployed, underemployed and people looking for new skills,” she said. “We can train them in our warehouse in a variety of skills, from warehouse packing to computer skills. I have classrooms set up now.”
And a state-of-the-art refrigerator/freezer will allow for more food storage. It will increase the availability of perishable foods, such as fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat.
LaSorsa said she couldn’t wait until the warehouse opens in the new building, which she hopes will be by the summer. “I have such high expectations for the new building,” she said. “Once Covid is truly over, meaning the economy is back on its feet, we don’t know what we’ll go back to. Hopefully people like the scouts, youth groups and churches will do their food drives once again. We lost a lot of our donations.”